In February 2017, an 18-year-old Cambridge University law student, Ronald Coyne, was filmed on the streets of Cambridge at night burning a £20 note in front of a 31-year-old homeless man, Ryan Davies, who had asked him politely for spare change. According to Davies, Coyne said, “I’ll give you some change. I’ve changed it into fire.” Coyne then continued down the street as if he had done nothing worthy of note. A member of the university’s Conservative club, he was drunk at the time—though not dead drunk, for he was more swaggering than staggering—and dressed in white tie and tails.
The video of the encounter went viral; a picture of the young man, looking very pleased with himself, appeared in most British newspapers. Public condemnation swelled. Before long, 23,000 people signed a petition calling for his expulsion from the university.
In a drop of rain, said the eminent British historian Sir Lewis Namier, can be seen the colors of the sun: and in this episode, brief and simple as it appeared, all the social, political, and philosophical conflicts of modern British society, and perhaps of Western society in general, can be seen.
No decent person could witness, or read of, Coyne’s conduct without revulsion. But expressing a universally shared disgust is not enough; it is necessary to go deeper and analyze the reasons for it. Why did the incident—relatively harmless, compared with the examples of violence and savage acts that fill the British tabloids daily—provoke such outrage?
At the moment of his gesture, Coyne exhibited a disturbing coldheartedness. It strikes fear in our hearts that men should be so effortlessly capable of such cruelty. If a young man—intelligent, educated, privileged, and with everything to look forward to in life—can behave like this, of what else might he, and others like him, not be capable? We cannot console ourselves that his action was mere thoughtlessness, a momentary lapse, like someone with much on his mind who passes through a swinging door without thinking of who might be behind him. Coyne’s gesture was not only malign; its malignity was its whole point. He took pleasure in the pain he knew it would cause, in the extra humiliation inflicted upon a man already in a humiliating position. His was an archetypically malicious action.
Coyne’s mother, who did not condone her son’s conduct, claimed that it was completely uncharacteristic. He had always been a quiet, studious boy rather than a roustabout, she said, and indeed, while still at school, he had worked as a volunteer for a homeless charity. Even if this were all true, however, it would not be entirely reassuring, for it would mean that a decent, even a good, person could suddenly transform into a bad one and perform a callous act. But at least such a reflection would warn us that we must constantly be on guard against ourselves.